Light drifted as a red fog in front of my eyes. I blinked them with an effort.
Consciousness teased me at the edge of the dark of my mind. I tried to move my hands. They were thick, heavy ... far from me ... not my hands at all it seemed.
"Son, you awake with all the clarity of a hot rock," softly laughed a familiar voice.
With that realization, I finally opened them. I groaned without words.
He was holding my dented copy of THE PASSAGE that Mark Twain had taken to show Ernest Hemingway. Gypsy, my cat, thumped off my bed and onto his lap.
In his ghost chair by my bed, Chandler made room for her by tossing the big book to the floor. "Don't worry, Roland. I only came to return this travesty of prose. Not to belabor the obvious."
"Ah, Mr. Hemingway ..."
"You know how prone to depression that old boxer is. He's still wandering the Shadowlands, muttering about million dollar book and movie deals."
"I take it you didn't like THE PASSAGE either."
He sat back in his plush leather ghost chair, scratching behind Gypsy's twitching ears. "What's to like?"
He filled his pipe with tobacco. "It is grim and depressing without any true sense of tragedy. You have to care about the people life mangles for there to be tragedy. And it's clear that Cronin doesn't care for his people so we end up not caring either."
He lit his pipe. "No, he just plays with his characters like a child with toy soldiers. And who cares when a toy soldier dies? A personality doesn't die ... just a pawn."
He bent down, picked up the book, flipped the pages for a bit then read : "He could no longer envision his parents' faces. This had been the first thing to go, leaving him in just a matter of days."
He looked at me, more sad than angry. "I had an uncle in Omaha, a minor and crooked (if I'm any judge of character) politician."
His eyes looked off into the shadows, becoming sadder. "As a very small boy I used to spend a part of the summer with him all the way up to the fall."
His voice softened with the remembrance of long ago seasons. "I remember the oak trees and the high wooden sidewalks beside the dirt roads ... and the heat and the fireflies and a lot of other strange insects and the gathering of wild grapes in the fall to make wine ... and once in a while a dead man floating down the muddy river."
He looked into the burning bowl of his pipe silently for long moments then turned back to me. "I remember all that. And Cronin writes that a man forgets the faces of each parent, dead at different times, after ... a few days? I regard his two sentences as disgraces to English prose ... and to the human heart."
His lips twisted into a bitter smile. "But he is a highly praised author while I am but a forgotten hack."
"As long as I'm alive you won't be forgotten, sir."
"You're not getting any younger, Roland."
"Gee, thanks, sir. You have any other reason to visit besides showering me with rays of sunshine?"
"You've lost me."
He smiled crooked. "Not that hard to do so, son."
"I can see you've been talking to all my ex-girl friends."
I covered a half-yawn. "What is this McGuffin? And please don't say 'exactly.'"
He smiled wide around his pipe. "It was the hitch in Hitchcock."
"He made films. He didn't write books."
"Ah, Roland, each novel is a film. Every author is its director. You get to choose the angle of the reader's view of each scene. You choose the lighting, the stars, the script. Your film can be a work of genius."
He made a sour grimace. "Or it can be THE PASSAGE."
"You're singing to the choir, sir. You haven't said what the McGuffin is."
"It's the tagline to your book, Roland. The thing that grabs the attention of the agent and the reader ... and is just as meaningless as all the false fronts to the buildings on a movie set."
He smiled at my frown. "It's what Cronin was trying to use but failed. A McGuffin is a plot element that snares the viewer, drives the plot along, and essentially is not what the movie or novel is about at all."
"I don't understand."
Chandler chuckled. "Take Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS. A spy drama about Nazi agents and a plot to use the evils of uranium. A woman is sent to spy on her old boy friend, a Nazi. Surprises, suspense, and thrills ensue. But the essence of the movie is about two men trying to prove they love the girl. Who does she believe? And why?"
Chandler stabbed at me with his pipe. "That's where Cronin failed. You have to stay with the girl to care. She has to be center stage most of the time. Cronin spends so much time on backstory for characters who stray off the stage, the reader loses focus and attachement."
He stroked Gypsy absently. "Hell, you have to chew a third of the way through his book before you get to characters who stay awhile. Most readers will throw down the book long before then."
He leaned forward, still gesturing with his pipe. "Take NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hitchcock himself says it contains his emptiest, most nonexistent McGuffin. Halfway through the film, the hero, cursed with being mistaken for a deadly American agent, finds out only his enemy is an importer and exporter of govenment secrets."
Chandler sat back. "That's all the hero gets for his explanation. But you in the audience don't care ... because by then you care for the hero, for his apparently doomed love for a beautiful, deadly girl."
I nodded. "It's like what my mother told me : "Life is staying with the one you brought. Loyalty."
Chandler nodded back. "Yes, tell your epic story. But tell it through the eyes of someone the audience can stick their hopes, worries, and heart on."
His long face shone with the light of a teacher. "The McGuffin is your tagline, son. But it will be your strong characters placed in jeopardy as they struggle for their heart's desire that will sweep your readers along."
He thumped his pipe on the book in his lap as Gypsy wrinkled her nose at the trailing smoke.
"These days movies and books are just McGuffins ... the idea without structure or characters to care about. Or worse, a tease, like a shill crying out at a carnival, promising one thing and delivering quite another."
Chandler sighed, "PSYCHO. Now, we know what it is about. But first viewers of the film thought it was about a stolen $40,000."
He smiled knowingly. "That robbery was only to get us into the Bates motel and a lovely young girl in jeopardy. In bloodier and sloppier fashion, the same could be said of FROM DUSK TO DAWN."
Chandler looked from me into Gypsy's heavy-lidded eyes. "The author is a magician, son. You distract with your McGuffin to hit your reader out of the blue with a sudden surprise and delight."
He blew out his cheeks. "But if the magician bores the audience to sleep with too much distraction, they are all nodding off when he pulls the rabbit out of the hat."
I smiled big. "You know, sir, you're the one who taught me how to write dialogue. And now this."
"How much are you paying me?," he smiled crookedly.
"I'm worth twice that." He grinned and disappeared.
Here is the trailer for Raymond Chandler's most famous novel and movie : THE BIG SLEEP :
Final Exam Season is Upon Us #picturepost
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