Do you ever have one of those moments when you think, “Oh my lord I just made the most amazing discovery”? And then two minutes later you think, “Wait, everybody but me probably knew this already.” I just had this experience with Raymond Chandler.
“Everybody” knows his passage from “The Simple Art of Murder,” the one that runs “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything …” and so on.
Now (and stick with me on this) I happened to be reading Gore Vidal’s review of Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of Somerset Maugham.
Maugham trained as a doctor in London at the end of the 19th century, and Vidal says this was “still Dickens’ great monstrous invention,” and then he quotes Maugham, “The messenger led you through the dark and silent streets of Lambeth, up stinking alleys and into sinister courts where the police hesitated to penetrate, but where your black bag protected you from harm."
Much of the world, and certainly much of the literary world, seems to have fallen out of love with Maugham (to be fair, Gore Vidal seems never to have been much enamored) but I think that’s rather a good sentence. It’s from Liza of Lambeth, Maugham’s second-written, first-published novel, from 1897, when Maugham would have been 23 or so.
Vidal writes, “Maugham raised the banner of Maupassant and the French realists but the true influence on the book and its method was one Arthur Morrison.”
And if you wonder who this “one Arthur Morrison” was (that's him above), it turns out he was the author of a book published three years before Liza of Lambeth, titled (hold on to your hat) Tales of Mean Streets. Did Chandler read Morrison? Well, it seems perfectly possible, doesn't it?
Morrison went on to write detective novels, his hero was named Martin Hewitt, but Tales of the Mean Streets is a series of short stories, sometimes described as "slum fiction" though there’s plenty of anthropological interest there. His East End of London doesn’t sound much less daunting than Maugham’s, or indeed Chandler’s Los Angeles. But I do wonder whether Morrison and Chandler would have had the same understanding of the word “mean.” Morrison would surely have favored the sense of poor or paltry; Chandler would have favored cruel and nasty; but maybe both senses are there in both.
Well that’s pretty much the extent of my great “discovery” except to note that there’s a certain amount of walking in Morrison’s mean streets. In a piece titled “A Street” he writes, “When love's light falls into some corner of the street, it falls at an early hour of this mean life, and is itself but a dusty ray. It falls early, because it is the sole bright thing which the street sees, and is watched for and counted on. Lads and lasses, awkwardly arm in arm, go pacing up and down this street, before the natural interest in marbles and doll's houses would have left them in a brighter place. They are 'keeping company'; the manner of which proceeding is indigenous—is a custom native to the place. The young people first 'walk out' in pairs. There is no exchange of promises, no troth-plight, no engagement, no love-talk. They patrol the street side by side, usually in silence, sometimes with fatuous chatter. There are no dances, no tennis, no water-parties, no picnics to bring them together: so they must walk out, or be unacquainted. If two of them grow dissatisfied with each other's company, nothing is easier than to separate and walk out with somebody else.”
It sounds to me as though he’s being unnecessarily mean to his characters.