Book Features
Jul 1, 1996, 13:40

illustration by Jim Blanchard

On the occasion of the Library of America's two-volume publication of Raymond Chandler's novels, essays, short stories, and letters, the question will arise once again over the relative importance of genre fiction to literature. Since Chandler is the first 20th century genre writer to be enshrined by that prestigious imprint, the debate will undoubtedly flare between professional academics who have their careers to justify and sensitive crime novelists who have their mostly mediocre work to defend. Intelligent readers, most likely, will be less willing to summon the energy needed to join the fray. They recognize that a good book, regardless of the subject, is good literature. Raymond Chandler wrote good books, indeed.

He also wrote about the process with customary point and wit. Discussing the “literature of escape,” he said, “Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds... all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary Of The Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.”

Chandler wrote detective stories, exclusively. All of his novels are written in the first-person voice of private cop Philip Marlowe, and all are set in the Southern California environs of Los Angeles. Marlowe, not physically described in the books, is a loner about whom the reader learns very little. He's tough and quick with a wisecrack and lives a Spartan existence while maintaining a certain degree of style. His work ethic is Protestant, his attitude toward sex nearly Puritanical. Marlowe takes on cases, solves them, and in the end does not like what he finds: a clustered core of maggots working beneath the pretty veneer of polite society. Chandler never strayed from those basic elements. He did one thing well and he did it better than anyone else.

Raymond Chandler didn't invent the American detective style known as hard-boiled. Historians would point to Carroll John Daly, and then to Dashiell Hammett, whose debut novel, Red Harvest (1929), is considered the first to feature the full-blown hard-boiled style (it is also a book whose delirious bloodletting has never been equaled). Chandler acknowledged Hammett's influence, as well as his role in changing forever the locked-room puzzle aspect and Victorian gentility previously inherent in crime fiction. “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley,” said Chandler. “He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Chandler's praise notwhithstanding, it would be inaccurate to credit Hammett with wholly inventing the form. Both writers honed their craft in Black Mask and in other popular pulps of the 1920's and 30's, and both could be said to have been influenced by Hemingway, whose own lean and terse style evolved from his working background in the stripped-down craft of journalism. More to the point, Chandler, Hammett and Hemingway were all part of an unofficial movement whose practitioners—Edward Anderson (Thieves Like us), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), and Nathanael West (Day of the Locust), to name just a few—concerned themselves not with the ritual of the parlor but the dance of the street, observing with a cool and reportorial eye the lives of common, desperate men and women. Some of these writers took on ambitious themes—the Depression, the Labor Movement, etc—causing history to bestow upon them the tag of “literary.” Hammett and Chandler concerned themselves with crime, perceived as a more narrow and less clean canvas on which to arrange their thoughts. Exactly what makes murder, thievery, and corruption less worthy than other subjects for exploration is unclear; the impulse of crime, acted upon or not, is an integral component of man's nature. As one character in John Huston's film adaptation of W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle memorably declares, crime is nothing more than the “left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Why choose Chandler, then, and not Hammett, to be the groundbreaker for the genre writers' inclusion into the Library of America? Certainly Hammett, to understate the obvious, is a worthy, important American novelist. But Hammett's work, read today, carries a certain air of stiffness to it, like an old man's body that has cooled, prematurely, in its final years. Unlike the books of Chandler, dust has begun to settle on Hammett's covers. Simply put, Chandler holds up better than Hammett in 1995.

Born in Chicago in 1888, raised and educated in England, Chandler made his way to California where he married Cissy Hurlburt, eighteen years his senior, and worked in a succession of executive positions in the oil industry. After losing the last of those jobs he turned to writing, publishing his first short story at the age of forty-five. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published by Knopf in 1939.

Though the first editions were never phenomenal bestsellers, it was obvious from the start that Chandler was a distinctive voice in American fiction. Despite his British upbringing, or because of it, Chandler loved and had an ear for urban American slang like no other writer working his side of the street. If it's true, as some claim, that no one ever really talked the way they do in Chandler's novels, then his achievement—that he created a kind of tough, dialectical shorthand that we have now come to take for granted as hard-boiled—is even more impressive. As they came to him, he continuously entered similes into notebooks, using them in novels to memorable effect: In Farewell, My Lovely (1940), Moose Malloy, “a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck,” is standing on Central Avenue in LA, looking “about as conspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” Another character stands out “like spats at an Iowa picnic.” Chandler used clipped, short descriptions as blunt and effective as a lead-filled sap. In the story, “Trouble Is My Business,” Marlowe is beaten up, polishes off a fifth of Scotch, and spars with a couple of toughs named Waxnose and Frisky. He wakes up in a chair, describes his condition: “I felt terrible. I felt like an amputated leg.”

Chandler also developed and perfected the smart, sexy banter between men and women, and the wisecrack-under-pressure between men and men that by attrition have become largely associated with film noir. In The Big Sleep, Carmen Sternwood, the aggressively amorous daughter of General Sternwood, sizes Marlowe up at first meet: “Tall, aren't you?” she asks. “I didn't mean to be,” Marlowe replies. In The High Window (1942), Marlowe goes once around the block with an annoyed and slighted bartender:

“Your Name?”


“Marlowe. Drink while waiting?”

“A dry martini will do.”

“A martini. Dry. Veddy, veddy, dry.”


“Will you eat it with a spoon or a knife and fork?”

“Cut it in strips,” I said. “I'll just nibble it.”

“On your way to school,” he said. “Should I put the olive in a bag for you?”

“Sock me on the nose with it,” I said. “If it will make you feel any better.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “A dry martini.”

The men and women who delivered these acidic lines have become, over the years, a roll call of classic characters: Degarmo, the brutal, dirty cop from The Lady In The Lake (1943), Chandler's most engaging, pure mystery; Moose Malloy, the giant who could be bested by no man but is felled by the love for his beloved Velma; The Big Sleep's Eddie Mars, one of a long line of vicious but oddly sympathetic gangsters in Chandler's fiction; and The Long Goodbye's Terry Lennox, first seen as “plastered to the hairline” and riding in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, “one leg dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one.”

Character and dialogue were clearly Chandler's meat. Plotting was not. His plots were often garbled and made little sense. He knew it, didn't care, and admitted as much, declaring that “the most durable thing in writing is style.” He might have mentioned his own talent for swiftly setting a sense of place: specifically, the sun-scorched streets of LA. Witness this passage that opens Red Wind, one of the best of Chandler's short stories:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer in a cocktail lounge.

In The High Window, Marlowe describes the jigsaw Gothic mansions of the formerly high-priced residential district of Bunker Hill:

They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

Despite stunning passages such as these, so common throughout the books, not everyone is enamored of Chandler's talent. Anthony Boucher, for many years the influential mystery critic of The New York Times, was never a fan. James Ellroy, considered by many to be the most fiercely original of our modern crime writers, and the author of a series of historical novels that have become known as the LA Quartet, has continually stated that Chandler never got the city right.” Ellroy's vision of LA is shockingly realistic, his rebop-influenced prose hard, staccato, amphetiminic. In a recent Armchair Detective interview, Ellroy stated, “Chandler is essentially very overrated and not as important as he's given credit for being.” The subject was addressed, more subtly, by Leigh Brackett, co-screenwiter (with William Faulkner) of Howard Hawks' film adaptation of The Big Sleep and screenwriter of Robert Altman's anti-genre filming of The Long Goodbye. In John Tuska's seminal The Detective In Hollywood, Brackett reflected honestly on the author and his adopted city: “The Los Angeles Chandler wrote about was long gone; in a sense it never really existed outside of his imagination.”

She might be right. LA might never have been a city of felt fedoras, shiny coupes, smoky, deco nightclubs inhabited by glittering, whiskey-throated women and pinstriped gangsters. But, like John Ford's West, Chandler's LA is one artist's vision of how he would have liked things to have been. It's a testament to the power of that vision that, like Ford's West, Chandler's Los Angeles has, in effect, become our reality.

If Chandler loved LA, he could not seem to fit into its premier industry. Though he did some major work in Hollywood—the screenplay (included in the American Popular Library collection) for Billy Wilder's film version of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity, and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's celluloid thrill-ride of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers On A Train—he never felt comfortable in Hollywood, and was not one to hold his tongue. Like many novelists, Chandler could not navigate the necessary give-and-take of a collaborative art; his fights with Wilder and Hitchcock were legendary. He was even capable of going after movie stars without provocation: he referred to Veronica Lake, the lead actress in the film made of his original screenplay, The Blue Dahlia, as “Moronica”; of Alan Ladd, her short-of-stature co-star, Chandler remarked, “Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy's idea of a tough guy.”

Chandler would become more insular and difficult as the years passed. Not surprisingly, Philip Marlowe's world darkened with Chandler's psyche as the books progressed. By the time of The Long Goodbye (1953), Marlowe is a cynical, bitter, nearly beaten man. The book is a wrenching study of friendship and betrayal, less a mystery-thriller than a startling, tragic ode to alienation. While scholars sometimes point to the wildly entertaining The Big Sleep  as Chandler's “best” book—perhaps because its bits of symbolism are rather obvious and easier to convey to students—it's interesting to note that many writers consider The Long Goodbye to be Chandler's masterpiece. And so it is; the book now stands as one of the most important American novels written in the century.

Chandler's growing anxiety may have felt singular to him, but it did not exist in a vacuum; in many ways it mirrored that of society's in post-World War II America. In 1950, Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled canon he had helped create:

Possibly it was the smell of fear which these stories managed to generate. Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for power and profit. The streets were dark with something more than night.

Chandler wrote very little of worth after The Long Goodbye;  it was if Marlowe's plunge into darkness was so final that his creator was unable to find his own way back out. When Cissy died, Chandler retreated to the problem drinking he had once given up, and fell into a pattern of loneliness, frustration, and paranoia. He began to doubt his own worth, writing toward the end of his life that “I never really thought of what I wrote as anything more than a fire for Cissy to warm her hands at.” He died shortly thereafter in La Jolla, California on March 23, 1959.

Chandler might not have realized the importance of his work, or his legacy, but it's there, and it's unshakable. Like jazz, the hard-boiled style that he helped create and perfect is a uniquely American art form: beautiful, rhythmic, complex. And in the end, perhaps the most enduring aspect of Chandler's literature is its egalitarian accessibility. A worn Chandler paperback fits as comfortably in a nephew's backpack as it does on a grandmother's nightstand, or on the shelf of a scholar's library. The brilliance of the work is organic, appreciated instinctively and immediately by anyone who can read and reason and wonder. And that's quite a compliment—the highest compliment, in fact, that a writer can ever receive.


This feature article originally appeard in Your Flesh #33 published Summer of 1996

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