‘Pearls Are A Nuisance’ is one of Chandler’s more unusual stories. It appeared in the Dime Detective in 1939 and is narrated by a heavy drinking, 6ft something Anglicized American by the name of Walter Gage who talks ‘the way Jane Austen writes’ despite his size and muscles (he played football in college we are told by his adoring girlfriend, Ellen). When Ellen asks him to track down some stolen pearls without the owner (her employer) knowing Gage is lead to a similarly sized thug and former chauffeur called Henry Eichelberger and, together, to two set out to find the pearls. The story has all the hallmarks of a typical Chandler tale: betrayal, a corrupt but wealthy woman, a beautiful girl. But it sticks out from some of his other stories for several reasons. Firstly there is something of Ray in Walter Gage. The main character narration feels like a pastiche with the juxtaposition of the muscle bound football playing Gage is comically at odds with his mode of narration which more Bertie Wooster than Philip Marlowe. And there are moments when Ray seems to shimmer through the prose: ‘I found a gray business suit of the largest size, which would be my size, if I wore ready-made clothes, which I do not’. This a sentence Ray could have written in one of his letter – like Walter he had a taste for hand-made suits, or at least he did when he worked in the oil industry. Also, Gage drinks too much and his girlfriend worries about him for it:
There’s just one thing, Walter…you are a little weak about one thing. Will you promise me not to drink any whiskey? (‘Pearl…’)
And Gage and Ray are both alike in that they don’t suffer from hangovers, despite lots of drinking:
‘A guy that can sleep it off like you is a real champ Walter.’ (‘Pearls…)
When I was a young man in the RAF I would get so plastered that I had to crawl to bed on my hands and knees and at 7.30 the next morning I would be as blithe as a sparrow and howling for my breakfast. It is not in some ways the most desirable gift. (Letter, 1955)
Secondly the camp narrator has a very unusual experience with the Henry:
At five o’clock that afternoon I awoke from a slumber and found that I was lying on my bed in my apartment in the Chateau Moraine, on Franklin Avenue near Ivar Street, in Hollywood. I turned my head, which ached, and saw that Henry Eichelberger was lying beside me in his undershirt and trousers. I then perceived that I also was lightly attired. (‘Pearls…’)
This is a story that has been picked over many times for evidence of Chandler’s repressed homosexuality and reading it it is not hard to see why it has been latched upon. It does seem strange that two grown men, no matter how drunk, would disrobe to share a bed together. And, whether you have an interest in Chandler’s sexuality or not, this homo-erotic moment makes the story stand out.
Thirdly, there is the way that Walter and Henry’s language jostle against each other. Gage has an English locution, Henry is all American and there is something inherently comic about the image of these two similarly sized men bantering with each other in the way that they do. Chandler doesn’t play this trick in any other story.
But I wonder if some of this is Chandler playing a game. Cissy and Chandler were both brought up in an age where the ability to hold a conversation was valued considerably and where the art of wit and punning were essential. We know that Cissy was particularly good at witty language because Chandler said she provided some of his best lines in his work. Now if we consider that Cissy’s name as a young woman had been Pearl (her maiden name was Pearl Hurlburt) I can’t help but wonder if the alcohol and the drinking and the title allude to some sort of private joke between Ray and Cissy. He loved this sort of thing – he loved Shakespeare and the games he played with language – so it would not be out of character but I haven’t been able to pin down the various elements. Perhaps because the title is just a coincidence. Or perhaps because, like their life together, the references are so private Cissy was the only one who could decode it.