My comments upon first reading Raymond Chandler's famous detective story, The Big Sleep, were all about how sparse and direct his prose was. Just the facts. Plain, chiselled.... more
The new art of mystery writing
He's commonly called the successor to Dashiell Hammett as the world's premier hard-boiled detective fiction writer. Some would say, greater than Hammett. His major creation, L.A. gumshoe Philip Marlowe, has become the archetypal private eye, more iconic and more enduring than any of Hammett's Continental Op, Sam Spade or Nick Charles, and more than any of the successive contenders like Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer or Robert B. Parker's Spenser.
Raymond Chandler shares much else with Hammett, besides having created a memorable character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in a film noir classic. For one thing, he didn't publish all that much. But he started writing late in life—in 1933, right around the time Hammett was ending his publishing career. Chandler was forty-five when he first broke into print. (He was actually older than Hammett.)
He had been born in Chicago but was raised in England and studied law in France and Germany, before returning to the U.S. in 1912. He was in the Canadian army during the Great War and afterwards had jobs in business before his career failed during the Depression. Like Hammett a decade earlier, he began with stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask. In his lifetime he produced only seven novels—low output in the popular crime field.
His famous sleuth was also, like Hammett's protagonists, a man of principle. Despite his tough exterior and rough manners, Philip Marlowe follows a code of honour that stands out as endearingly old-fashioned in a corrupt, often vicious, world.
And like Hammett's works, Chandler's novels can be read as morality tales. Beneath all the roughhousing and sexual tension can be detected a critique of American society, run by greed and big money, that makes men like Marlowe necessary. Chandler's vision however may be less politically hard-nosed than his predecessor's (I don't think he was a Communist as Hammett was) and he may have held out greater hope for the redeeming value of individual goodness. It is surprising to find, once you add them up, how many of Chandler's hoodlums and vixens actually turn out to have good sides and do the honourable thing in a pinch. There's a sweet touch (though just a touch) of Damon Runyon sentimentality in Chandler, despite his insistence on absolute realism.
He also wrote with more poetry than any other crime writer of his time. Intermittently erupting among the spare, just-the-facts sentences are arresting lines setting a scene, a throwaway wisecrack, a novel description of a dead man, a creative account of what it's like to take a bullet and or have a punch land square on your face. Most of all though, it's in his wonderful dialogue. I'm not sure anyone ever talked that concisely and cleverly in real life, but when you read it you hope maybe they did. Macdonald said of his literary idol (and you'll find this quoted on a million book covers): "Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence."
A mixed-up story
Macdonald, who emulated Chandler, did criticize him though for not bothering to work out his plots. The narrative of a private detective going about trying to solve a mystery often doesn't make sense in a Chandler novel.
That is, if you notice. Chances are you become too wrapped up in the scenes of human interaction—taut, relaxed, exciting, funny, sexy by turns—to pay much attention to how they are strung together. Chandler wrote wonderful scenes. And then he pops up every now and then with a clever insight to solve part of the mystery and you realize the information was there all along but you were too caught up in the personal give-and-take to notice.
Chandler's most famous novel is his first, The Big Sleep (1939), a notoriously mixed-up story, which nonetheless rewards successive readings. If you aren't familiar with the hard-boiled tradition, this is the novel to plunge into to get a sense of the genre's possibilities and difficulties.
Fan favourite Farewell, My Lovely (1940) is equally complex but the story benefits from periods when Marlowe stops to review the case, either alone or with a friend. It's also the novel in which we become more aware of Chandler's implied social critique—in the cops' reluctance to investigate the murder of blacks, in the corruption of civic politics and in the apparent evidence that good people can't get ahead in this world. Moreover, the sharp reader may pick up on the author's mockery of other wordsmiths, especially Hemingway and old-style mystery writers.
The Chandler novel most highly praised by critics however may be The Long Goodbye (1953). It shows the writer in late life losing patience with the crime genre and becoming more critical of society and modern life. It's a more sprawling novel that only intermittently comes back to the mysteries that are to be solved—though quite rewardingly.
His other novels, which also rank among the best detective fiction ever written, are The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister (1949), and Playback (1958). All have been adapted for film.
But you needn't start Chandler with a novel. His earlier stories have been collected in a remarkable volume, The Simple Art of Murder (1950, reprinted 1988). It is introduced with an insightful, unsparing essay by the author, written late in his life, about his craft and those who practised it before him, being particularly critical of the so-called golden age of cosy British mysteries.
Also diverting is Trouble Is My Business (1950, reprinted 1988), a collection of four of his longer stories.
Chandler also turned out some good screenplays, not based on his own novels, for Hollywood. Among them are scripts for Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951). He was nominated for Academy awards for writing the first two.
His last novel Playback also started as a screenplay in 1947-48 but was never produced despite being top-notch film work. You can read Chandler's final draft in Raymond Chandler's Unknown Thriller: The Screenplay of Playback (1985). Chandler cannibalized many of the characters and situations from the screenplay, and added Marlowe's point of view and much more to create the novel a decade later.
Chandler's unfinished novel Poodle Springs was completed by Parker in 1989. Interestingly in his last few works, we see Marlowe moving towards a kind of domesticity with a well-to-do woman (introduced in The Long Goodbye) who can almost match him for spirit. The pairing is reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles in Hammett's last detective novel and is a precursor of the more sensitive detectives in the hands of Parker and others.
Parker also wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep called Perchance to Dream (1990), about which the less said the better.
A better tribute to Chandler is the 1988 collection Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration, which offers twenty-three Marlowe stories by other leading mystery writers, plus a pretty good previously unpublished story by the master himself.