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RAYMOND CHANDLER said hard-boiled literature of the 1920s and 1930s “made most of the fiction of the time taste like a cup of luke-warm consommé at a spinsterish tea room.” This wonderful simile comes from an introductory essay to Trouble Is My Business, a collection of Chandler’s stories first published in 1950.
Chandler’s main character is Philip Marlowe, a shamus. The word “shamus” (SHAW-mus according to Merriam-Webster) is defined as a private detective and comes “perhaps from Yiddish shames, shammes; from a jocular comparison of the duties of a sexton and those of a store detective.”
M-W says the first known use of shamus in English was in 1925. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld agrees about the date and offers several other spellings including shamos, sharmos, and sharmus.
I read Chandler’s “spinsterish tea room” quote in The Annotated Big Sleep, a recent addition to my collection of annotated editions.
The mood of this charming yet authoritative work is set early on: There’s a footnote aptly titled “He was as Square as a Text Box in an Annotated Edition.” Students of rhetoric will recognize this as a simile, an indirect comparison of two things, in this case, he and the text box. This rhetorical construction is in contrast to a metaphor, a more direct comparison sans “as… as” or “like.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, I offer my favorite Chandler similes and metaphors. They’re literary gems. They’re as satisfying as back scratching. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018