I probably read Chandler years ago. It must have been like tasting a very special whiskey blend too strong for the inexperienced to appreciate, for I fell into a stupor and do not remember it at all now.
This summer I tackled Chandler’s novels and short stories for what felt like the first time. By happenstance, it happened in the right sequence:
- Read the novels and get lost but nonetheless intoxicated with the writing and characterization
- Read the short stories – yes, even the Wodehousian one, which is actually quite good – and familiarize yourself with the material Chandler reworked into those Marlowe novels. Among other benefits, this will clear your mind of the Eddie Valiant stereotype.
- Pick up the novels again and work backwards from the point where the booze, not Chandler, is starting to do most of the writing (say, The Long Goodbye if you can’t stand Playback), ending with the best of them all, The Big Sleep…and linger over its sublime thirteenth chapter
The complex plots, characters, and settings now fall into place. You can also appreciate the many throw-away gems that this writing is studded with. Some are one-liners. Others are just superb examples of writing style.
For example, in Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe is being driven from point A to point B in Los Angeles. It’s not a crucial moment and yet Chandler takes us along on the ride like this:
We curved through the bright mile or two of the Strip, past the antique shops with famous screen names on them, past the windows full of point lace and ancient pewter, past the gleaming new nightclubs with famous chefs and equally famous gambling rooms, run by polished graduates of the Purple Gang, past the Georgian-Colonial vogue, now old hat, past the handsome modernistic buildings in which the Hollywood flesh-peddlers never stop talking money, past a drive-in lunch which somehow didn’t belong, even though the girls wore white silk blouses and drum majorettes’ shakos and nothing below the hips but glazed kid Hessian boots. Past all this and down a wide smooth curve to the bridle path of Beverly Hills and lights to the south, all colors of the spectrum and crystal clear in an evening without fog, past the shadowed mansions up on the hills to the north, past Beverly Hills altogether and up into the twisting foothill boulevard and the sudden cool dusk and the drift of wind from the sea.
There are so many things going on in that paragraph. It’s beautiful.
In his best form, Chandler was also the master of incomplete sentences like that second one. In The High Window, he uses it to jar the reader just as Marlowe is about to be jarred by a very unpleasant client:
I went in. The room beyond was large and square and sunken and cool and had the restful atmosphere of a funeral chapel and something of the same smell. Tapestry on the blank roughened stucco walls, iron grilles imitating balconies outside high side windows, heavy carved chairs with plush seats and tapestry backs and tarnished gilt tassels hanging down their sides. At the back a stained-glass window about the size of a tennis court. Curtained french doors underneath it. An old musty, fusty, narrow-minded, clean and bitter room. It didn’t look as if anybody ever sat in it or would ever want to. Marble-topped tables with crooked legs, gilt clocks, pieces of small statuary in two colors of marble. A lot of junk that would take a week to dust. A lot of money, and all wasted. Thirty years before, in the wealthy close-mouthed provincial town Pasadena then was, it must have seemed like quite a room.
Few writers, past or present, could pull that off so well.
A lot of people have imitated Chandler down over the years. Writers to some extent are like chimps that way, learning by imitation.
Who did Chandler imitate?
Mark Twain. It came to me as soon as I started Chandler’s first novel. Saints were few and far between along the Mississippi River back when Samuel Clemens traveled there and described the people and their times.
Chandler has Twain’s power of observation and ability to convey the reality he sees so well, the reader has an almost photographic sense of the writer’s world.
Chandler has a very different tale to tell, of course, but both hiss and Twain’s best characters are thinking, feeling individuals who make plenty of mistakes. They aren’t particularly lovable but are just compassionate enough to do the right thing by their fellow man in circumstances that make it the worst possible choice – and then innocent enough to hate themselves for doing it.
Remember how you felt the first time you read this famous section of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck is considering doing what society would consider the right thing by turning in his companion Jim, an escaped slave (N-word alert):
At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.
Rex Stout, whose Nero Wolfe stories are grape juice compared to Chandler’s Burgundy and port, directly referenced that famous Twain passage in Death of a Dude.
Chandler never did. He just sent Marlowe into hell, over and over again. The detective always got out again, usually a physical wreck but with his soul intact, simply by being who and what he was.
Raymond Chandler wrote so well, there’s a YouTube video of one of his short stories being read. And it has gotten thousands of hits.