“The Bronze Door”

And here’s a belated look at the weird fiction being discussed this week at LibraryThing.

Regular readers will wonder what happened to the last two weeks’ worth of weird fiction. They were Lovecraft pieces I’ve blogged about before. The blogging madness has to stop sometime, and I’m not going to cover most pieces more than once.

This is the first Chandler I’ve read though I’ve certainly seen imitations of his style, but I hadn’t got around to reading the master himself. The closest I’ve come is many viewings of the movie Double Indemnity which has dialogue by Chandler.

Review: “The Bronze Door”, Raymond Chandler, 1939.0b910211280873b637038727341434b41716b42

As you would expect in a rare bit of weird fiction from mystery writer Chandler, there is a murder here and a detective here.

Events are set in motion when our protagonist Mr. James Sutton-Cornish goes to his London club and meets a “man from the Calabar” an “empire-builder frayed at the temples”. Sutton-Cornish is delighted at this since no one ever talks to him at his club apart from servants.

But, perhaps, the exchange also aggravates Sutton-Cornish’s discontentment with his life since that empire-builder went to the same school as he did though they never met before. And, when we return home, we find out why James is discontented and drinks too much. (Drinking too much was a subject Chandler personally knew well.) His wife Louella is a shrew who reminds James that he’s a failure and that they live off her money since the only thing he brought into the marriage was a house he inherited.

And then there’s Teddy, Louella’s Pomeranian, who tyrannizes James since Louella dotes on her dog.

Well, things go bad when James returns from the club. Louella chides him for drinking and, in a bit of spontaneous pique, James kicks Teddy across the room. James tries to explain his action as Teddy catching him off balance.

It’s the last straw. Loeulla is going to her house in Chinverly and says she wants a divorce. James, in drunken jest, asks “are we married?” And then she leaves.

Afterwards, James thoughts turn to the man in the club and his tales of “Nairobi and Papua and Tongatabu”. He’ll return to those places and “lie awake in the jungle, thinking of London”. Chandler’s prose is subtle; he doesn’t have to tell us explicitly that James thinks the life of the man from Calabar throws his life into pitiful contrast.

James decides to go out, and here the first bit of strangeness in the story shows up.

He meets a coachman who he asks to take him to Soho, the “most foreign place he could think of – for a hansom cab to go to”. The story is set contemporary to 1939 so a hansom cab in London is odd. In fact, upon seeing the cab, James remarks he hasn’t seen once since the war. “Wot war, guv’nor?” asks the coachmen. That’s not the only odd thing about him. The driver is somewhat taken aback about James’ destination. Soho’s got “too many dagoes” according to him.

There seems to be an unearthly element to the coachman. He may be present through a timeslip, but, if so, it’s only him. James smells the gasoline fumes of modern times on his trip, hears car horns.

But the encounter is significant in its foreshadowing and a suggestion it puts in James’ state of mind. The coachman tells James,  “Y’know … things might happen to a man, if a man would just let them.”

“They already have,” replies James.

James makes a hasty departure from the coachman in Soho. His ignorance about the Great War and going on about improbably cheap restaurant prices is disturbing.

In Soho, James comes across an auction in progress and a large bronze door and frame for sale. The auctioneer, Mr. Skimp, tries to sell it to him at the auction, but James doesn’t buy. However, after the doesn’t sells, he expresses an interest in the large door. While walking around it, talking up its features, Mr. Skimp opens the door and steps through it — and disappears.

Mr. Sutton-Cornish watched him – as long as there was anything to watch. In fact he watched much longer.

Not seeing Skimp return, James buys the door from Skimp’s nephew and requests its delivery to his home.

The door is delivered and mounted in a partition to an alcove.

Afterwards, we hear rumblings from one of the servants about quitting if Louella doesn’t return though another servant regards her as “an old sow”.

Three weeks later Detective-sergeant Thomas Lloyd of Scotland Yard shows up at James’ home. He’s investigating the disappearance of Skimp and asks a few questions. James plies Lloyd with whiskey and shows off his door. James offers that Skimp seemed tired with his lot of an auctioneer and that, maybe, he just took off. “Some very queer types in Soho,” he says. Lloyd tells him, linking back to the coachman’s talk of Soho, that it was “a rough district once, but not in our time.”

Lloyd leaves satisfies, and James goes over to the door and, showing he has some sense of what has happened, says “Mr. Skimp … you are wanted by the police.”

That afternoon Louella shows up. An argument ensues. Her lawyer has told her she doesn’t have grounds for a divorce. James replies that he’s not going to fake grounds for one with some “actress in Brighton”. And he’s not going to free up Louella to marry some other man and torture him with Teddy’s presence.

James reveals his real hatred and contempt for Louella, and she says he’ll be without his house when this affair is concluded. She leaves in a huff, forgetting Teddy.

This amuses James who chases Teddy around for a bit before Louella comes back in the house trying to find the dog. But Teddy has gone through the bronze door.

Even in his laughter Mr. Sutton-Cornish felt the wing of a regret brush his cheek. Poor Little Teddy.

And then Louella goes through the door – an addition to the house she didn’t even notice.

Realizing that, like Skimp, she’s disappeared behind the door, James asks himself, “I didn’t really intend anything like that . . . never . . . never . . . oh, never . . . or …. did I?”

James sacks the servants.

Scotland Yard moves with the deadly dependability of a glacier, and at times almost as slowly. So it was a full month and nine days before Detective-sergeant Lloyd came back to No. 14 Grinling Crescent.

In the matter of Mrs. Sutton-Cornish’s disappearance, Lloyd is not going to be put off or plied with whiskey. He knows about the separation.

Let’s ‘ave it, sir. . . . Best in the long run. Best for all. Nothing to gain by foolishness. The law’s the law.

James admits his wife left him and says, because of that, the servants left his employ. Beyond that, he doesn’t have a clue.

Lloyd isn’t buying this.

Seems to me like people does a bit of disappearin’ when you ‘appen to be around. Take that Skimp.

James gives him the key to the bronze door and tells him Skimp, Louella, and Teddy are hanging on meathooks behind it.

But, on opening the door, Lloyd doesn’t go through. James tries to push him in. But Lloyd is a much bigger man and it’s James who ends up going through the door. Looking through it, Lloyd not only doesn’t see any meathooks. He doesn’t see James.

The whole thing disturbs Lloyd for the rest of his life. He downs some of James’ whiskey and leaves and then comes back and knocks the door out of its frame using his great strength and an axe. The key to the door he throws in a pond.

A fake report is filed. The file on the disappearance of the Sutton-Cornishes occasionally gets dusted off through the years. The door is melted down in estate proceedings.

The story concludes with:

Sometimes when Inspector – formerly Detective-sergeant Thomas Lloyd is walking along an unusually dark and quiet street he will whirl suddenly, for no reason at all, and jump to one side with a swift anguished agility.

But there really isn’t anybody there, trying to butt him.

Besides the lingering effects on Lloyd, the story is also noteworthy for making absolutely no explanation as to why the bronze door has its power. There’s no reference to magic or occultism, just a description of the door. Chandler has taken a tactic from Edgar Allan Poe in realizing the why of the door doesn’t matter, just that it does what it does.

Throughout the story is also the theme of James committing or allowing violent acts, starting with kicking Teddy, that he claims he didn’t intend. The only murder he fully intends is Lloyd’s. That echoes the coachmen’s advice to just let things happen. And, perhaps if James had just let things happen, Lloyd would have stepped through the door on his own.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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